RICHMOND, Va. – On the busiest shopping day of the year, VCU made sure to stop by the Siegel Center to pick up an important victory. Like Big Hugs Elmo dolls, they are in demand, and require a certain level of grit, persistence and focus to procure one; Although the eye-gouging was left to the Target parking lot squabbles.
There’s no such thing as a “must-win” game in November, but there are the kind that you’d really like to have, and even the kind you probably really need. VCU’s 79-66 win over Northeastern Friday at the Verizon Wireless Arena is likely some combination of both.
VCU, coming off a 1-2 trip to the Puerto Rico Tip-Off last week, which including a stinging blowout loss to Florida State and a frustratingly just-out-of-reach setback to Georgetown, came home looking to get well. The Rams were trying to do so against a Northeastern team that has traditionally been a tough out for VCU…and had just beaten Georgetown…and played Florida State to the wire…and VCU was without two of its top eight players in Jordan Burgess (knee sprain) and Terrance Shannon (family matter).
This would not be a Black Friday giveaway. If the Rams were going to put Puerto Rico in their rearview mirror, they were going to have to earn it in the claw-your-way-past-Wal-Mart-shoppers way.
In a gut-check game full of gut-check moments, the Rams showed guts. VCU’s losses in Puerto Rico may have sent the Rams tumbling out of the top 25 and bruised their confidence, but Friday’s win will go a long way towards halting both slides. It should also give the team a welcome shift in momentum as it prepares for what promises to be a tough road trip to Belmont on Sunday.
“[This was] real important,” said senior Juvonte Reddic. “We really emphasized just getting back to what we do, just playing hard and really locking down on defense. So we really wanted to come out here and show that we were improved. I just think that we went back to the process. We locked down on what we needed to do and everybody was focused on what we had to do.”
The keys on the Siegel Center court may be painted black, but that’s blue-collar territory. VCU beat Northeastern Friday because they controlled the paint on both ends of the floor, an area for which they are not necessarily known. Despite Shannon’s absence, VCU became the first team to outrebound Northeastern this season (31-26). VCU also scored 55 percent of its points (44 points) in the paint. It’s the highest percentage of the Rams’ points to come from that area this year. VCU also shot 71 percent (27-of-38) on two-point shots. The Rams entered the game shooting 47 percent on twos this season.
Plenty of credit for VCU’s work in the post should go to Juvonte Reddic, who produced a 17-point, 10-rebound double-double, but freshman Mo Alie-Cox delivered a crucial performance in place of Shannon. The 6-foot-6, long-armed forward scored seven points, blocked five shots and altered several others in his first career start.
Alie-Cox had shown glimmers of becoming a shot-blocking, rim-defending force, but pressed into action for 27 minutes Friday, he flourished. His lunch-pail performance stood out in a lunch-pail win.
“He’s the best guy around the rim, protecting the basket that we’ve had since Larry Sanders,” VCU Coach Shaka Smart said. “He’s not on Larry’s level yet, but for a freshman to block five shots, and then, he changed a lot of other shots, affected some other shots, and he’s doing a nice job finishing around the basket when he gets his opportunities. He’s still learning. He’s just seven games into his career, but I’m excited for him, because he’s a guy that’s going to be a really good player here.”
When it wasn’t Reddic or Alie-Cox working for buckets on the low block, it was the dribble drives of Melvin Johnson (13 points), Briante Weber (seven points) and Treveon Graham (24 points) that kept alive a steady flow of high percentage baskets. It also didn’t hurt that Graham knocked down all four of his 3-pointers.
In addition to their presence in the paint, the Rams got back to defending in the way they’ve come to be known.
While Northeastern shot 50 percent in the game, VCU got stops when it really needed them. The Rams held the Huskies without a field goal the final 9:54 of the game, as a two-part margin became a 13-point gulf. Northeastern missed nine of its final 10 field goals. Then, with just over two minutes remaining, the Rams turned a long rebound into a runout that ended in a SportsCenter-quality tomahawk dunk from Weber and effectively nailed shut the Rams’ fifth win of the season.
It was also that defense that keyed a pivotal 8-0 run to close the first half. Reeling under the weight of a 17-3 Northeastern rush, VCU counterpunched with a dizzying blitz in the final 59.7 seconds of the first half to take a 37-34 lead into the lockerroom. Following a 3-pointer from Johnson, Rob Brandenberg stripped David Walker at midcourt for an easy dunk. Later, after an Alie-Cox blocked shot helped turn Northeastern away, Graham converted a putback on the other end and was fouled for a three-point play. Just as Northeastern was pulling in front, VCU yanked the Huskies back.
“That was very important,” Reddic said. “Usually we have a tough time going into the second half, but when we finished out the first half, that really got the guys really excited and got a lot of energy going on, and we really came out for the second half ready to play again.”
One minute midway through the game may not have necessarily decided the game, but it sure pushed it in that direction. Similarly, one win in November does not a season make, but it can help steer a team down the right path. Friday’s win was just that, a step in the right direction.
“I thought their attack against the press was really good,” VCU Coach Shaka Smart said. “They really gave us some trouble, but our guys made some big plays, made some blue collar plays and that was a hard-fought win.”
Graham did not start Friday, but was the first Ram off the bench. Johnson started in his place. Smart said Graham missed two practices this week with a “minor injury”. He did start the second half… With five steals Friday, Weber now has 200 in his career in 79 games… Weber also had seven assists and just two turnovers… Reddic has two double-doubles this season… Alie-Cox had made all seven of his field goal attempts at home this season.